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Top 5 photos from “A Picture Says” in 2014

Top 5 Pix 2014For the final post in this year’s “A picture says…”, host James King highlights some of the photos that spoke to him most eloquently, from this year’s series. (If you like what you see, be sure to check out his blog, Jamoroki.)

My heartiest holiday greetings to one and all. I hope you enjoying the festive season, and I wish you a wonderful New Year.

As ML says, we’re doing an End-of-Year Special instead of the regular monthly interview. But before I get started with my picks, I really want to thank the 10 wonderful people who have contributed so much to my column over the past year by subjecting themselves to my tortuous interviews. Without exception, every single one of you has had a fascinating story to tell which has been beautifully illustrated with the personal photographs you were kind enough to share with the Displaced Nation readership.

After it was suggested to me that I should select my five favorite photos out of the 70 posted, I dived in head first, only to realize I could upset some of the 10 new friends I have made in 2014.

So I want to say before we start that this is not a competition. I would like to pick all 70 photos but of course that’s not possible so here are my 5 (in random order) along with my reasons for choosing them. There were a few close shaves by the way.

1) “Pumpkin Field,” by Aisha Ashraf

Irish expat, blogger, traveller and photographer Aisha Ashraf is currently based in Canada with her husband and three children. A freelance features writer, Aisha has published articles in newspapers, magazines and a range of expat and mental health websites. She says she has been a cultural chameleon since she first emigrated from Ireland to England at the age of eight. She is also a friend to the Displaced Nation and a recipient of one of its “Alice Awards” for a post on her Expatlog blog, provocatively entitled “My mother was a nun.”

I have chosen this photo of Aisha’s daughter in a field full of pumpkins because it is so vital, and the naturalness of the colours brings her lovely composition to life. Not only this but the viewer can only guess how or why a picture was created and Aisha’s words offer a whole new dimension.
No 1 Pick 2014 Ashraf

Aisha says:

“I love nature—perhaps it was growing up on a farm and spending most of my time outdoors. I have a condition called Borderline Personality Disorder (BPD) and getting outside is a big factor in alleviating its debilitating hold. I see incredible, uncomplicated beauty in the natural world that I find soothing and strengthening. I try to capture it with my camera in a way that may allow others to be moved and nourished by it, too.”

2) “Church on Skyrne Hill,” by Ed Mooney

The story of Irishman Ed Mooney is quite different from others guests for several reasons, the main one being that he is not an expat. On the contrary, he travels within the confines of his native Ireland.

That said, Ed does cross boundaries, at least in a temporal sense. He loves nothing more than to immerse himself in an obscure historical site, exploring Irish history, lore and mythology while also photographing the surrounding ruins, to keep a record of what remains from generations past.

I really like the name Ed has given to his hobby: “ruin-hunting”. Ed tells me that ruin-hunting merges Past, Present & Future. By researching the history behind a place, he pays tribute to the Past. By writing about the experience, he brings it into the Present. And by posting his article, along with his photos, on his blog, he preserves his findings for the future. I love the way Ed weaves historic research into (mostly) black-and-white images.

I have chosen Ed’s photo of the church that sits on Skryne Hill, the site of an early Christian settlement. Ed says his memory of Skryne remains vivid. The tower is inaccessible due to a very heavy iron gate that appears to be rusted shut. As with all Ed’s pictures there seems to be a ghostly atmosphere, which is not surprising considering his subjects. Ed’s story of his experience is spooky to say the least and drew me into the picture more closely than usual.
No 2 Pick Mooney

Ed describes his visit to the church as follows:

“I shone my torch through the bars on one of the windows. Inside were a number of interesting stone artefacts that I wanted to capture. So I set up my flashgun and shot through the bars. On the second or third flash something physically grabbed my camera strap and pulled it into the tower. It all happened so fast, but somehow I managed to pull that camera away from the window while shouting a few expletives. At first I wondered if it might have been a draught of some kind that had caught my strap, but it could not have been as I was pressed right up against the opening and there was no wind to cause a draught. Then I thought that maybe someone was inside, but there was no way for a person to get in or out of the tower. To this day I still can’t explain what happened. But it certainly left a lasting memory.”

3) Monteseel by Andy Harvard

South African photographer, traveller and chef Andrew (Andy) Harvard is by nature a creative person. His creative talents, ideas and passion spill over into his passion for photography, which he indulges on travels in South Africa and worldwide. His blog celebrates all three of his passions under the descriptive title “snap fly cook”.

An early bird, Andy often wakes-up at 03h00 in summer to be on the beach in Durban, where he lives, in time for first light and sunrise an hour or so later. He is also fond of seeking out “hard to access” locations and revels in the hours spent working and reworking his photos through his favourite software packages.

Andy says “I find this process very calming and am sometimes like a kid in awe when something magical happens. It is a meditation of sorts for me, an ‘addiction’ that has to be fed. Oh! The wonders of HDR processing.”
Pick No 3 2014 Harvard Collage
I have chosen Andy’s beautiful picture of Monteseel because, having lived in Durban for a while way back in 1990, I know how awe inspiring the landscape is. Andy has perfectly captures the essence of the Kwa Zulu Natal in this photo. I can feel the heat as the day dawns and, as Andy says:

“Huge mountains, deep valleys, tranquillity, big skies, rural living, clean fresh breezes, golden light—Monteseel, in the Valley of One Thousand Hills, makes one realize how small and insignificant certain problems we all have actually are.”

4) “Boy in the Door,” by Cornish Kylie

Kylie Millar was born and bred in Cornwall, England, and, though she now finds herself in Thailand, just like me, she remains proud of her Cornish heritage, having branded herself on her travel blog as Cornish Kylie.

Not only that but Kylie informs me that the Cornish were granted official minority status earlier this year. Being born and bred in Cornwall now means, technically, that a person is identified as Cornish first, British second—with the latter identity being confined largely to one’s passport. Well, it is true that Cornwall was its own Celtic nation before the Norman Conquest, and they have their own language, Kernewek, which is distinct from Welsh.

I had little hesitation in choosing Kylie’s “Boy in the Door” as one of my five. Adjectives like dirty, dusty, colourful, old and intriguing come to mind when I look at her picture. And each time I look at it, I expect the boy to be gone.
Pick No 4 2014 Kylie
Kylie describes it thus:

“When I was in the Atlas Mountains of Morocco, I couldn’t resist taking pictures of the many beautifully decorated doorways. This picture was accidental as the boy emerged from the doorway just as I pressed the shutter release. Then I realised how people can add an extra dimension and started to include people in more of my photographs. This trip to Morocco was special: it opened my eyes to a very different part of the world.”

5) “Hampi,” by Maverick Bird

Born and raised in India, Svetlana Baghawan, who calls herself Maverick Bird, is a mother and writer as well a traveller. She describes herself as a compulsive shopper, foodie, bad cook (her words) and animal lover. She likes to travel solo across continents, sometimes completely alone, often with her five-year-old daughter in tow. Having worked as a flight attendant for quite a few years, she was bitten by the travel bug early, and for good.

I have chosen Svetlana’s picture of Hampi, a village in Karnataka State in South West India. It is famed for being located within the ruins of Vijayanagara, an empire that came to prominence at the end of the 13th century. Svetlana has clearly been touched by the places she has visited on her travels and in this picture she conveys feelings of solitude in the wilderness and tranquility. I find it very moving.
Pick No 5 2014 Maverick
Svetlana says:

“Although it was tough to decide between Hampi and Kashmir, I love Hampi more for its surreal mix of a tangible ghostly civilization lying scattered amidst one of the most beautiful landscapes in India (think balancing boulder, rice fields, forests and obscure rivers) and little pockets of villages. The enchanting blend of the dead and living is breath-taking and this photo represents Hampi’s larger-than-life beauty. You have to see it to believe it.”

I believe you. Svetlana.

* * *

Readers, do you agree with my picks or do you have other favorites? Please leave any questions or feedback in the comments!

(If you are a travel-photographer and would like to be interviewed by James for the 2015 series, please send your information to ml@thedisplacednation.com.)

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For this former flight attendant turned free-spirited solo adventurer, a picture says…

Svetlana Portrait Collage

Canon zoom lens, photo credit: Morguefiles; portrait of Svetlana Baghawan taken at Golestan Palace, Tehran, Iran.

Welcome to our monthly series “A picture says…”, created to celebrate expats and other global residents for whom photography is a creative outlet. The series host is English expat, blogger, writer, world traveler and photography enthusiast James King, who thinks of a camera as a mirror with memory. If you like what you see here, be sure to check out his blog, Jamoroki.

My guest this month is 33-year-old Svetlana Baghawan, who says she is a “cloud gypsy” or “maverick bird” (that’s what she calls her blog) because she likes to fly and explore—she also hikes, treks and daydreams. On her blog’s Home Page, Svetlana declares:

“When I’m not traveling physically my mind wanders in loops and whirls across open space.”

Born and raised in India, Svetlana is a mother and writer as well traveller. She also describes herself as a compulsive shopper, foodie, bad cook (her words) and animal lover. She likes to travel solo across continents, sometimes completely alone, often with her five-year-old daughter in tow. Having worked as a flight attendant for quite a few years, she was bitten by the travel bug early, and for good.

The way she described the self-portrait she sent to me for “A Picture Says…” (see above) helped set the scene for my interview with her:

By the time I left Tehran, I was a far cry from the shaky, nervous girl who had landed there two weeks before. The photo (above) was taken by the Tehran moral policeman who pulled me up for wearing tight jeans. When I told him I was from India, he revealed a fascination for Bollywood and I glibly lied about being a professional Bollywood dancer. He happily let me go after taking this photo and a few others. Not only did my response save me from harassment but I’d surprised myself with my new-found confidence. It was a turning point in my life. That’s why I love the photo.

* * *

Welcome to the Displaced Nation, Svetlana. I have been looking forward to discussing your photo-travel experiences ever since I discovered your blog, Maverickbird, some months ago. The first thing that caught my eye was the unusual title which, as I now know, describes you perfectly. Let’s start with where you were born. And when you spread your wings (an apt metaphor in your case!) to start travelling?
I was born in Calcutta, India, and spread my wings at the age of 17 when I was selected as a flight attendant by an international airline.

I think I can put you in the seasoned traveller category now as you have been travelling for work and pleasure for 16 years. Tell us, what is it like to be a solo female traveller?
My travels could be described as falling into three categories. Initially they were only what I would call city centric and absolutely touristy. You know, the places where flight crews get night halts and have limited time to relax. So there is little else to do except take selfies, shop, eat and sleep. Then came the phase when I travelled with my family, which, apart from the touristy fun bit, also involved taking on a lot of responsibilities. Then finally, at the age of 30, I started traveling solo. Since then my journeys have been challenging but also more fulfilling and enriching.

So at last you are, how shall I say, awakened perhaps? And living a dream. I can appreciate how uplifting that must be so I would love to know what inspired you to travel and what countries you have visited?
It may sound a bit melodramatic, but one day I was happily tied to my role of the traditional Indian married lady, and the next I was suddenly alone: a blow was dealt to my secure little world. I struggled to come to terms with my loss, but grief and depression, coupled with the suffocating social taboos that are dumped on bereaved ladies in India, nearly drove me over the edge. I was still a flight attendant at the time so used my free airline ticket facility and took off. I craved an escape. It was my way to survive. Iran was my first stop. It was tough—but soul touching and completely healing. I returned from Iran with a new-found zest for life, secure in my own identity and confident to take on the world once again.

How many countries in all have you visited?
If I include all the places which I have visited since I started flying then the list would run to nearly 60 countries. As a solo traveller, I have visited and engaged with 13 countries in depth.

“Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,/The world offers itself to your imagination…” Mary Oliver

Recovering from a tragedy takes courage, and the fact that you didn’t dwell on your loss for too long shows your resilience. I firmly believe that we learn more from adversity than we do from triumph or success. You have good reason to be proud. So where are you now, how did you end up there and what is life like in a new place?
I am in Sri Lanka where I came to help a friend on a whaling project. I have found Sri Lanka to be very unsettling and unexpectedly tough to handle especially for a single woman of Indian origin. Although it’s a breathtakingly beautiful country with amazing people, culture and history, I have a sense of “alien familiarity” here, which I’m finding difficult to handle. It’s similar to home yet so very different. I am constantly oscillating between feeling at home and being displaced. Sri Lankans only seem to be able to associate with Southern India—hence the dazed reactions of nearly everybody I meet to my descriptions of Calcutta. This is slowing wearing me out.

A whaling project sounds pretty exciting—I hope you don’t let the other issues get you down. Let’s have a look now at some photos that capture a few of your favourite memories and hear your stories about what makes these memories so special.
It is a very arduous trek to reach the Himalayan blue poppies at the Valley of Flowers National Park, in Uttarakhand, a state in the northern part of India. But the beauty at the end of the journey is mind blowing. I still clearly remember how my first sight of the rare blue poppies took my breath away:

Svetlana_blueflowers

Singing a gorgeous blues in the Himalayas; photo credit: Svetlana Baghawan.

Meeting huskies in Lovozero, a village in Northern Russia, was a dream come true for me. Their puppy love floored me completely. It was extremely heart-warming to see the way those tough little dogs did the usual doggy tricks, like yapping away in happiness on being taken out for a run, making cute puppy eyes to get their way and cuddling on one’s lap like big babies.

Svetlana_huskies

Floored by puppy love in Northern Russia; photo credit: Svetlana Baghawan.

The third photo is of my daughter during Diwali. We had gone for a drive and I loved the way her eyes lit up with happiness at the prospect of quality mommy-baby time. It was fresh after our little world had gone awry, and it was magical to see how fast children rebound from losses and find happiness in every moment and in smallest of things:

Svetlana_daughter

A daughter’s delight in Diwali; photo credit: Svetlana Baghawan.

Diwali, for those who don’t know, is the biggest festival celebrated in India. Held around November, it signifies the victory of good over evil and is celebrated with a lot of festivities: spring cleaning, new clothes, home makeovers, auspicious purchases of substantial things like gold, cars, house etc, starting of new ventures, exchanging gifts, sweets and finally with lots of lights and fireworks. The whole country gets lit up in millions of lights as every Indian irrespective of caste, religion and social standing, decorates their house with lamps/lights.

This is a beautiful photo which captures a child’s joy and innocence. I can see she is very precious to you.

“I love the freedom of my wings.” —Banani Ray

Tell us, where were (or are) your favourite places to take photographs?
Shiraz, Iran, is a favourite of mine because of its stunning landscape, spectacular architecture, feast of archaeological wonders, and photogenic people who are also genuinely friendly. I loved the playful rainbows created inside this mosque. To me it truly represented Iran, which I have found to be a friendly, delightful and safe country. Unfortunately, it is shrouded under an unfortunate pall of cruel myths.

Svetlana_mosque

Somewhere over the rainbow…is this gem of an Iranian mosque; photo credit: Svetlana Baghawan.

How interesting and not the general Western perception of the place, I’m sure.

Siberia would be another favourite place to photograph. The sheer amount of unexplored open natural beauty is very freeing and of course the landscape is breathtaking. These wild Altai horses say Siberia to me, with its staggeringly expansive land mass and incredible, wild beauty.

Svetlana_horses

Wild horses in the wilds of Siberia’s Atlai mountains; photo credit: Svetlana Baghawan.

Last but not the least would be Hampi, a village in Karnataka, a state in South West India, famed for being located within the ruins of Vijayanagara, an empire that came to prominence at the end of the 13th century. Although it was tough to decide between Hampi and Kashmir, I love Hampi more for its surreal mix of a tangible ghostly civilization lying scattered amidst one of the most beautiful landscapes in India (think balancing boulder, rice fields, forests and obscure rivers) and little pockets of villages. The enchanting blend of the dead and living is breath-taking and the last photo represents Hampi’s larger-than-life beauty. You have to see it to believe it.

Svetlana_Hampi_India

Contemplating the former glory of a ruined empire (Hampi, India); photo credit: Svetlana Baghawan.

I believe you (I doubt I will ever get the opportunity to see it!). You have clearly been touched by the places you’ve visited, which should be an inspiration to other wannabe solo travellers. I’d like to know if you feel reserved about taking photos of people, particularly when they are conscious that you are doing so?
I love to take people’s photographs but at times do feel a bit conscious about photographing elderly people. This stems from the fact that they belong to a completely different era and might not at all like the idea of getting clicked. Photographing members of the religious fraternity, like monks, also makes me a bit nervous. I almost always ask permission before taking a person’s photo and in case of a language difference, bow, smile, greet and point to my camera to seek permission.

“It’s impossible to explain creativity. It’s like asking a bird, ‘How do you fly?'” —Eric Jerome Dickey

Would you say that photography and the ability to be able to capture something unique which will never be seen again is a powerful force for you?
I would like to think so because I see beauty in almost everything and love to capture it to share those moments with others. I believe that looking at the world through rose-tinted glasses is a gift I received from my mother. When I was growing up, she instilled in me a love for life’s beauty in how she would react to the world around us. She would spot a photogenic army of marching ants, play of sun and shade, curls of flower petals, waving strings of lights, etc., and share those moments with me in such an inspiring way. That said, it took me some time to get in touch with this inborn gift. I first realized it in Delhi while photographing a man selling neon-coloured balloons in front of India Gate. The detailed neon glow against the brooding monument in the dark inspired me, and those photos were very well received by my friends and family. Since then, I’ve been alert to beautiful details and while it was once a conscious effort, it is now a seamless habit, one that has made me much happier and contented. Discovering beauty at every step does make the world a less threatening place.

Your mother clearly had a great influence on you and especially the way you interact with natural scenery. Moving on to the technical aspects of photography: some of our readers may be curious to hear what kind of camera and lenses you use.
I use a Canon 550D although have recently upgraded to 600D and most of the time use 18-200mm lens. I prefer not to use post-processing software, but at times I have tried my hand at Picasa.

That’s a coincidence. I have the 600D as well! But unlike you I spend a lot of time learning and using post-processing. I believe, if you have the time, that learning about and improving photographic skills can add enormously to a blog. Having said that, I love at lot of your photo compositions and the subject matter is really good. Finally, do you have any advice for wannabe photographers who are traveling or living abroad?
Traveling abroad is both extremely tough and fulfilling at the same time. To leave your comfort zone for unknown territories and cultures is difficult but once you start coming to terms with the culture’s uniqueness, you will fall in love with it. Accepting the way a new place is in a non-judgmental way will help the transition process and slowly reveal its unfamiliar yet unique beauty, which you can photograph. Respect for the local culture comes first.

Thank you, Svetlana, for taking the time to tell your heart-warming and fascinating story. The late great American actress Anne Baxter once said:

It’s best to have failure happen early in life. It wakes up the Phoenix bird in you so you rise from the ashes.

You strike me as living proof of that statement. You have overcome adversity and grown as a person: a true triumph!

* * *

Readers, what do you make of Svetlana’s experiences and the photos she has produced? Please leave any questions or feedback in the comments!

Want to get to know her better? I suggest that you visit Svetlana’s blog, maverickbird. She can be contacted by email.

(If you are a travel-photographer and would like to be interviewed by James for this series, please send your information to ml@thedisplacednation.com.)

STAY TUNED for next week’s fab posts!

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The road trip and the teenage soul

Beginning today, Charlotte Day joins The Displaced Nation as monthly columnist and will comment on our themes from her third culture kid (Australia-US-UK) perspective. September, of course, was road trip month. Though Charlotte has yet to earn her driver’s license, the prospect of free time between high school and university has begun to fuel her imagination…

Sitting at my English boarding school desk, with English boarding school weather drizzling down from the sky outside my window, the idea of a road trip seems utterly foreign. While I’ve been putting together my application for English universities over the past week, which involves a disgustingly trite “personal statement,” the post-exam summer has been jeering at me from behind an ever-growing pile of books.

The road trip represents all of a stressed and stifled sixth former’s ideals, the first being absolute freedom. This freedom is born more of security than anything else — exams finished, hopefully a university offer in the bag, five whole months to dispose of, no looming responsibilities. The image of the angst-ridden teenager is romanticized and misguided: we do not seek malaise and uncertainty but rather comfort and certainty.

Evaluated in this sense, the road trip is akin to a ghost story. The pleasure we take in listening to ghost stories comes from the knowledge that, though the tale itself may threaten, secure reality encircles and protects us. Teenagers nowadays go adventuring in South America, more often than not supervised by charitable organizations and subsidized by their parents. Setting off into the wilds, they seek a future that doesn’t seem vulnerable to any current of chance. Rather, adventure is a brief detour from a pre-set plan.

I have often contemplated my own post-exam adventure in the form of a road trip across the Australian desert with one of my oldest friends. Yet, I am tempted to wonder, what is the point of venturing into the unknown, if only to return to the comfort of the known?

A true coming-of-age adventure would take courage — and would not end in merely turning the van around and arriving home with several memory-sticks full of photographs. That said, I do not cancel the possibility of driving through my native country — an experience that would very likely prove both enjoyable and “life-changing” in a tame sense. But my phantom road trip, eschewing tameness and security, is, undoubtedly, more interesting material for this column.

Let us begin, then, with the road. (I can’t say I know much about roads, save that hairpin bends on a mountainside are as hair-raising as country dirt roads are romantic.) Given that this is the Displaced Nation, familiarity with the territory is out of the question. I will forcibly displace myself — ruling out the United States, England and Australia.

Setting out to conquer … Western Siberia?

This still leaves a huge selection of countries — and having done the electronic version of sticking a pin at random in a world atlas, I have settled on Western Siberia.

Given I am a passionate Russophile and speak a modicum of Russian, my cursor couldn’t have landed on a better country. But confronted with the expanse of Western Siberia, it is doubtful that either of these qualities will be of much use. Perhaps it is telling that Google maps cannot plot a journey from Yakutsk, through Irkutsk and Krasnoyarsk, to Novosibirsk.

One dilemma instantly presents itself: where would I stop and spend the night? I would doubtless end up sleeping in the car for the vast majority of the trip, which brings us to the car itself. In my perhaps misguided road-trip fantasies, I had always pictured one of those old Volkswagen vans — slightly falling apart, squeaking along an endless highway.

But the prospect of breaking down in the middle of Western Siberia does not appeal to me. I must settle for a more prosaic Winnebago-type vehicle, and seek excitement elsewhere. And, as traveling through a wooded desert of sorts, alone, would be not only foolhardy but isolating, a companion seems necessary.

But who, of my sensible friends and relatives, would jump at the chance to travel Siberia in a Winnebago with an insane Russophile?

Given this journey is a child of my fancy, I will not scruple to add another fantastic fabrication: someone whom the power of affection has persuaded to join me on my ill-advised quest. In short, a boyfriend: thoroughly idealized, as a genuine boy in his late teens would prove a terrible nuisance, stuck in a Winnebago from Yakutsk to Novosibirsk. (But of course, the conceit of the comfortable Winnebago is also absurd: such things are found with difficulty in Russia.)

Relishing the … monotony?

You may ask, save an endless parade of trees, open space, greyish vegetation, what would I hope to see? Just that, smattered with the odd town, church cupola, river, lake, blue sky, grey sky, sunrise and sunset.

Unlike Konstantin Levin of Anna Karenina, I do not see myself losing my heart to the Russian land, and devoting my future to wheat threshing. I would become an unfulfilled Chekhovian heroine, stifled in the provinces.

But I believe the fields must be seen, just as we must eat bread, where macaroons would bring more pleasure to the taste buds. Macaroons, far from nourishing, make us fat and complacent. Bread sustains, and makes us grateful to be alive and fed.

I would like to see land in all its endless, characterless glory, to drive from sunrise to sunset, and to talk the night through (although not literally, as I would be loath to crash my Winnebago through exhausted inattention).

I envisage some sort of talisman, suspended from my rear-view mirror—and not one of those scented pine trees, seen so frequently dangling from the rear-view mirrors of American cars. Perhaps an Australian gum leaf on a string, as a reminder of my greater journey’s starting point, now eleven years in the distance.

After all, if I am not to return to the known at the end of this journey, I must bring a fragment of it with me, into the dangerous, the blank, the uncharted space, from which discovery springs.

Readers, any questions or suggestions for Charlotte, before she sets out on any phantom — or real — road-trip adventures?

img: Charlotte Day surveying Trafalgar Square in London.

STAY TUNED for Monday’s post, the first in a new series on the joys and challenges of being an expat in France and attempting to master French cookery.

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